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Laura Gao: Artist & Writer & Bread Lover

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A chat about the best bread in San Francisco, going viral on Twitter and going from no-stakes art to full-time art.

Words by 

Cherie Yang

Published on 

September 1, 2023

Laura Gao

Laura sits at the intersection of multiple worlds. Art and math. East and west. Left brain and right brain. Words and graphics.

She first went viral on Twitter over Thanksgiving 2019 with a self-deprecating joke about her role as a product manager at Twitter. (In the aftermath, her mom asked her what a ‘mee-mee’ is.) Fast forward to 2020 and Laura’s Twitter notifications blow up again with her comic, The Wuhan I Know. Laura was born in Wuhan before moving to the States at age 4. During the COVID pandemic, her hometown is thrust into the world’s consciousness in an overwhelmingly negative light. We talk about her main drivers for publishing the comic, and her experiences of day and night (literally) during this period. The comic gains so much traction on Twitter that it’s picked up by NPR and other news outlets, and Laura wins a book deal to turn her comic into a graphic novel.

We dive deep into what the process has taught her about herself, how she works as a creative, why she likes coffeeshops, and about why she wants to bring the value of authenticity to her book and life.

P.S. Fillmore Bakeshop in SF gets Laura’s vote for the best sourdough.

First things first. Tell us about the bread obsession.

It's nothing too sophisticated. I just have always been a huge fan of bread, ever since I realised that it existed beyond sliced bread. Growing up, my family was fairly middle class, and so my mom always got like the sliced bread. I always hated those that were super dry. I think American bread is also pretty bad compared to the rest of the world. And so I always hated bread growing up. Out of all the carbs, why would you choose this really dry flimsy little piece of square? But once I graduated and started making my own money, and realised that bakeries with actual fresh rolls and super puffy, amazing, scrumptious bread existed, Wow! A whole new world opened up to me and my hatred has now turned into an adoration for really good bread. My favourite bakery of all time in the city is called Fillmore Bakeshop. It's in the Japantown/Fillmore area of San Francisco. I highly recommend it. Their sourdough roll is probably the best thing I've ever had.

So now, I’d love to start at the beginning...

I was born in Wuhan. My parents both immigrated to the States for graduate school right after they had me. I was raised by my grandparents in Wuhan up until I was around 4. That's when my parents had saved enough money to bring us over to the States. We lived in Louisiana for a bit, then we moved to Texas for my dad's job. And that's primarily where I grew up. I would consider Texas to be my second home in a way. My parents have the classic immigrant story in that they went from rags to riches. My dad, in particular, came from a family of farmers. Even now, when I go home to Wuhan, the family still lives in the countryside and it's completely different from everything I've experienced over here.

For college, I went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is in Philly. I knew I wanted to leave Texas for a bit and see what else is out there. That was really great. And that's also where I found my love for tech, for design, and for art. I've loved art my entire life. It was then that I was able to combine all of that to get a job at Twitter right after graduation as a product manager. And that's how I ended up in San Francisco.

How did your love for art come about? Do you remember?

Honestly, I feel like I've been doodling before I even knew how to write. At a very young age, I remember I would piggyback with my parents to the church every Sunday, but I didn't understand a thing. I was probably incredibly young then, and I always would just be doodling and drawing. My mom was like, “She loves to draw, but she also makes such a fuss at church, we should probably maybe send her to a class when we're at church.”

They found this Chinese artist who’d immigrated to Dallas, who apparently was pretty well known when he was in China. He had a studio where parents could send their kids to and so I started learning from that teacher every Sunday. I didn't particularly like it because his style was black and white sketch drawings of still life. If you looked at my journal of doodles from that time, they're all superheroes, bad guys and animals. All super fun stuff. That's when my mom first realised that, not only do I like it, but I had some kind of talent. I did end up quitting that studio, but I started going to art classes at school.

What does drawing mean to you?

Drawing has been a huge way of expression throughout my whole life. From the moment I was young, there weren't many outlets for me to express my feelings. My family in particular was fairly stoic. I've always had an aversion to being alone with my thoughts, because I just didn't know what to do with them. Drawing was a good outlet for when I couldn't put all my thoughts into words. Or even if I did, for when I didn't have anyone to express them to. It was great to just have a pencil and paper that I can lay it all on. A lot of my early comics and drawings were pretty biographical. They either depicted something that I wanted to reflect on, or something I want to cherish because it was a great memory.

When did you start drawing comics?

I didn't start drawing comics until college or later, and I remember how I first started. After I graduated, I started work here in SF. There was a period of time in which I felt really disillusioned. I was in a long distance relationship with my then-partner and that really hurt and it was easy to feel lonely as a result. Work was really stressful. I was wondering, 'I love art so much but why am I not doing that in my life.' I decided that every night before I went to bed I’d draw a short thing about that day or a moment in that day, to appreciate my days more.

What was college like for you?

People always joke that artists can't like math, but I love math! In college, I got into the business school. I’ve always loved numbers, stats and analytics but at the time, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I think I changed my major 20 times over those four years, honestly. I remember this one class on mechanical design in which we 3D printed things and we laser cut different objects to create these cool structures. I absolutely loved that. It brought together my love for hands-on learning with my passion for art and design. I did a couple of animation courses too—those are the ones that I pulled the most all-nighters for. But they were really awesome all-nighters. I enjoyed every single minute of them.

Math vs. art. What was it like for you switching between the left and right sides of your brain on an almost daily basis?

If anything, it really helped to have two different things that I was doing every day. When you got tired of one thing, you could easily switch to the next and it will help you balance out your entire life. I think a lot about friends who went to art school who would get so burnt out about art that they couldn't—they didn't—even want to draw another thing.

Did you ever consider studying art instead of business?

For a bit, yeah, but I just knew it wasn't practical. My parents are very classic immigrant parents, and there was no way they would pay for art school.

So, art was always something for you to keep on the side?

I always wanted to keep art as a passion, for sure. It’s been a huge part of my life, but I didn't think it would ever turn into a full time or actual ‘life’ thing that I would do. One, my parents probably wouldn't let me go to art school, but two, I actually wasn't really that confident in my art to be able to get me into art school. I didn't think that I was good enough compared to a lot of my peers. I thought it was just better if I keep it as a passion. But, sometimes, life just surprises you.

I want to talk about your doing art full-time. But first, let’s talk about going viral—not once, but twice...

It was super left field. I saw a joke about it and I just thought it was super funny and I should do it [the meme] for my job. This was definitely something that my dad has said before, about everything that I do. And so I posted it, not thinking that it would ever go viral because my job as a product manager [at Twitter] is fairly niche. But the next thing you know, everyone in the world was liking and retweeting it. I love that everyone also used a format for their own jobs. It's like, no matter who you are, even if you were a hotshot doctor, your dad would still be mad about it. It was really a funny moment with all these strangers on the internet.

How did you end up at Twitter?

In college, I'd been switching between a bunch of majors and had decided to go into finance, because that's what most people in my school did. It was the most acceptable job to my dad. He had this dream that his daughter would become a Wall Street hotshot. Thankfully, I did not go through with that. I ended up realising that it was not for me at all.

In junior year, I went on a trip to San Francisco where we got to meet different companies and alumni in tech. Twitter was one of them. That was my very first time getting introduced to Twitter as a company, and beyond just an app. I got to learn a lot more about the tech world which at the time I had known nothing about. After that trip, it just really hit me that I’d been making things my entire life. And that's what tech is about. It's all these creative minds coming together to make really cool things. I ended up recruiting really hard for tech at the last minute.

You were at Twitter when the pandemic struck, which really put Wuhan on the map. As a result, you created another (soon to be viral) comic, why?

The main driver for publishing that comic was this dissonance I felt with being on this side of the world in which everyone around me was fed a lot of media about how awful Wuhan was. I even heard rhetoric about how the people were savage for eating bats. There were a lot of very nasty negative things about people in my family and people in my hometown. I’d hear that during the day, and video chat with my family back home at night. They had nothing but love and worry about me and like everyone else around. That was really unfortunate and heartbreaking for me to feel those two very different perspectives, but having no one to marry them together. The common thread is that we're all in this together trying to fight this thing. There's no point in bringing down one or the other.

I wanted to be able to combat the negative media that we were getting, especially in the Western countries, and bring my own point of view. I wanted to say, "This is actually my beautiful hometown, and all the beautiful things that you're missing. And everyone here is trying to get past the same challenge in the world and we should be banding together instead."

An extract from Laura Gao's, The Wuhan I Know.

Why do you think the comic went viral?

From the feedback and fan mail I got, a lot of people were saying that the message was super universal. I think the main group of people who had really positive emotions connected to it were one people who were also Chinese-American or Chinese like me, and have felt that the world was demonising them for something they had no control over. They really appreciated that my comic called out people's bad behaviour. We should be bonded together over it. The last panel [in my comic] says “Jiayou Wuhan.” "Jiayou" is "rooting for you". At the end of day, we're all victims of the same disease.

The other group was people who were non-Chinese or non-Chinese American, but who also had the same sentiments, and were glad to learn about all these new things about Wuhan. It's honestly such a beautiful place with beautiful landmarks, amazing food and wonderful people. So many of the fans responded saying that Wuhan's the first place they wanted to visit once everything's over. That really brought joy to my heart too. The last thing is—and this is all by coincidence—the very day that I posted it was also the day that Trump had called the virus a Chinese virus on Twitter. Every news article was picking that up. I think a lot of people were looking for that more positive outlook, compared to our president just taking the easy road to shaming someone.

Did you also receive hate mail?

I did, especially in the Twitter replies. I didn't read all their replies, but there were some. I honestly expected it. I’ve worked on the anti-abuse team at Twitter, and I've seen way worse comments. When I first posted it I actually expected it to get a lot more negative reactions than positive ones. At the time, there was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment. I did not expect to get such positivity. So if anything, all the positive comments really overwhelmed the negative ones.

So, how did the book deal come about?

After it went viral, the calls started coming in. I got an interview with NPR, which is really awesome. After the NPR interview, a publisher reached out to me through Twitter asking if I wanted to turn it into a book. I didn't know anything about the publishing world. I’d created this comic just after work in a coffee shop, and so I did not have all these crazy, big dreams for it. I just wanted to get my story out there. But after she called, I was like, "Wow, that's super cool. This is my rocket ship moment, there's no way I'm going to let this fly by."

I ended up going with my current agent, Brenda, because she really got my story. She saw the other comics on my website and really understood the type of storytelling I wanted to do. It was super quick. Within a couple of weeks, we wrote a proposal for this expanded book, which would touch on more than just Wuhan. It’s about my immigrant story, being in the intersection of two worlds, and trying to deal with the conflicts that come with being between two cultures. We're aiming for the summer of next year (2021) for when the book will come out, so hopefully when all of this [COVID] is over.

You mentioned earlier that you were really disillusioned and stressed at work. How did you end up leaving Twitter?

I was approaching a year and a half at Twitter. While I did like my co-workers and my role, there was a piece of creativity that was missing, similar to when I first started doing art at that studio, which was teaching black and white still life. It was so boxed in. I felt that same sentiment on Twitter. I got to exercise my design muscles, but even design is quite literally all boxes when you're doing UI/UX design on an app.

My mentor was also a product manager at Twitter. He said something that really flicked that switch i n my brain. He went to college to study film and wanted to be a filmmaker, but ended up as a product manager. I asked him, “Do you still write scripts on the side or try to film small short films?” He had been a PM for 20+ years at this point. And I remember him saying, "No, I actually think it's been so long that I don't think I can even write a script anymore." That hit me so hard. He was someone I really respected, and I still do, but it was just so sad to see him lose that part of himself after not being able to exercise it for so long. I can't let my love [for art and design] fade away. I need to make sure that I'm always exercising it in some kind of way. I will definitely regret the day that I realise I can't even draw anything on a paper. I'd resolved to put more art into my life, maybe even start doing art full time. I thought of becoming a traveling artist, but that’s when COVID hit. All these plans vanished. There was no way I could travel and I needed health insurance and job security.

After I got the book deal, that was the green light for me. One, the book deal gave me enough money to sustain myself. And two, I knew that I could not do this book justice if I was also working a full time job. If I truly wanted to try out full-time art, I needed to make sure I'm putting my full self into it.

Congratulations! What was the most eye-opening thing about going into art full-time?

Everything that I'm learning about myself and the way I like to work. They weren't huge surprises, because I know that I'm always someone who hated routine. I love being able to work at 2:00 am if I wanted to, because I'm very nocturnal. I prefer to work at 2:00 am versus 2:00 pm, and when you're working 9-to-5 for a corporation, that's just not possible. Learning how I like to work and being self-employed helps me to really get the most out of that.

Another thing that's very eye-opening is how much of a mental battle being a self-employed artist is. I thought going in that motivation or artistic skills would be the biggest challenge. But the biggest challenge really has been the mental battles whenever I'm stuck in a rut with my art, or my writing, or I don't know what to do and I'm the only person doing this. I had a whole team of people at Twitter all with the same goal. Now, how do you get past a lot of demons in your mind telling you you're not good enough or that you're an imposter, or you’ve wasted all this time? That's been a huge learning opportunity for me to build self-confidence.

Art is your comfort, but how do you cope when the mental battles that you face stem from being a full-time artist?

Before, there were no real stakes. I made stuff for myself. I could post it or I could decide not to. And even when I did, I didn't really care how many likes they got because it was mainly just for me. But now, there are all these stakes. If I'm making this book, I'd want other people to like it and read it. And because it's a memoir, I'm literally putting my full self onto the page. And that's really scary too, because if people don't like your book, maybe they don't like your art, or your writing, but maybe they just don't like you as a person. So that's incredibly personal. The biggest mental battle I face is how much of myself should be on the page.

My publisher also paid for this book, and I want to make sure I’m not letting them down. Because if your book doesn’t do well, who knows if I’ll have another opportunity afterwards, right? I try to constantly remind myself that this is still infinitely better than anything else I could have done and just to really enjoy the ride, because it goes by so quickly.

You tweeted that people warned you that you’d become disillusioned after making your passion your career. How did that make you feel?

I’ve definitely seen that before with myself. When I was in school, I ran this design business and I was lucky that it was fairly successful. But at one point, I had too many clients to handle that I was not enjoying my work. And I feel like that's probably what people mean about getting disillusioned. So far, it actually hasn't been the case, and I'm still really enjoying every moment of it. I think the difference here is that while there is a lot of pressure, I get full creative control over everything about my story. My editor gives feedback, but what I want to write about and how and the voice that comes across is all authentically mine. Whilst there is money involved, I think because I started off with a pretty good safety net of savings, I'm able to take a lot of pressure off as well and fully enjoy just the creative process.

What’s your book writing process been like?

It's been honestly such a wild ride. A typical graphic novel takes one to two years to create. But my editor and I both agreed to fast track that because of how timely the material was. So, we decided if I can get this book done in six months, she'll fast track it for summer next year (2021). That's definitely been a challenge but also a really cool goal.

When I really like something, I put 24/7 focus on it and it doesn't feel like time is actually passing. I usually do it in sprints. For a couple of weeks I’d be fully grinding on the art, or the writing. I was probably doing 14-hour days of drawing. Normally, I'd start around noon and go until 4 or 5 am. But it never felt like work. Everything just felt so fun and so free. When I turn in my art, my editor and my art director might take a couple weeks to get back to me and so that would be my vacation time. All the breaks I probably should have been taking during the 14-hour days, I just clump them all together: 2 to 3 weeks of nothing. And during that time I don't look at my story at all. I try to erase it from my memory, because it helps in my next round of revisions if I look at it with brand new eyes. And I usually do other things that are not work related, so I could refresh myself during that time.

Do you have a spot that you have to sit at to draw?

I can draw from anywhere. Over the last few months, I've been home in Dallas, I've been here in San Francisco, and in an Airbnb in Mammoth Lakes with some of my friends—it was there that I actually got most of the pages done! I typically designate my spaces. Wherever I sleep, I make sure that's not where I do my work, because it’s very easy for me to then mix up my leisure brain with my work brain. And I also make sure that wherever I work, I'm not also like watching Netflix or playing games. If I want to play a game, I will physically pick up my laptop, go to different rooms and do it there.

Do you have any pre-drawing rituals or habits?

Coffee definitely is a must. I don't know if that's a ritual or just a necessity. I have to have a cup of coffee in the morning. I always put on music. I have a specific playlist that I use every time I draw and I never get tired of the songs on it, even though I've heard them a million times at this point. I will typically do a quick meditation session too before I draw to focus. I need a lot of sunlight, in general. And I simply like to work around other people too. It makes me not feel so lonely.

You mentioned the very first iteration of this comic was done in a coffee shop. Were you always drawing at coffee shops?

I did always prefer coffee shops because I would like the vibe of them. I love the smell of coffee, and they usually put on fairly good music. I love being around people. It reminds me that I'm not tackling things by myself. Even if we were doing different things, it still feels like we, in a way, are on a team for a specific purpose.

Do you ever get into a rut and not know what to draw or write?

That usually happens after I’ve been grinding for a couple of days. I will usually have to take a day of rest after 4 or 5 days of drawing or writing. I honestly think that's a good practice for anyone that’s a creative, because you can't expect your brain to always be on. Maybe I'll listen to a podcast, go on a hike, or just do something to refresh myself.

Do you think you’ve found your voice as an artist?

Honestly, I'm still trying to understand what exactly a voice is. With this memoir, I think I'm getting closer and closer to being my full authentic self on the page. I think when people read this book, it will definitely be clear that I'm the one narrating it.

When I send it to friends, I think it passes the “name test.” Even if you blank out all the names, someone who reads it will be like, “Yeah, I'm definitely talking to Laura.” So, I think that I have found my voice in that sense, but it's constantly evolving. It’s a combination of everything I learned throughout the years. I hope it continues to evolve along with my art style.

Words versus graphics. Which one comes first?

The words came first for this one.

I wrote out a 100-page script before I even started drawing. I've heard it varies across all comic artists. Because my brain is pretty visual, it was easier for me to have the visual in my brain and write it down, instead of sketching everything out—my sketching ability probably isn't as great as I’d like it to be to where I could just sketch immediately what's in my brain. So, I'd rather just write it down first. It made it a lot easier for editing too, as I didn’t have to redraw anything.

Your book is a very personal memoir. You’re very open on social media about your background, your self-identity, your mental health. How do you feel putting yourself out there?

It's definitely scary! I mean it's funny, because whilst it is scary, I've always been super open.

As you said, I post about things that are probably pretty taboo for other people on social media. Even when I was at work, I spoke up about things I was really unhappy about that other people felt could really jeopardise my career. I was a huge advocate for diversity and inclusion, and I was being critical of leadership when I didn't feel that they were working hard enough on it. I think that's always just been who I am. If no one else is speaking about it, then I will do that.

Is that a function of your upbringing?

I do think it is something that I cultivated throughout high school and college. Growing up, since I'm the older sibling, when my brother and I get into fights with our parents, I would always be the more vocal one. One thing that was learned is how to be confrontational and to stick up for what you want.

In college, I was fortunate enough to be around some really awesome people that accepted me for who I was—that was a deliberate thing I wanted. All throughout high school, I felt like I was living this double life where there were a lot of things I kept hidden, like my sexuality. But in college, I got to be fully out and authentic to them. And, honestly life has just been that much happier. I realised that authenticity is the best value to have if I wanted to stay happy in life. So, that's the value that I bring now into my book and the rest of my life.

I love hearing that. Would you care to talk a little bit more about your coming out?

Yeah, I’m queer. I think I've really known that for most of my life, but never got to fully admit it until college. I grew up in a small pretty conservative religious town called Coppell in Texas. It’s predominantly white Baptists. I don't think I knew a single out LGBTQ+ person at my school at the time. Also, there were very few people of colour and being a queer person of colour is a whole new layer in itself.

All of that meant that I had to keep everything secret up until college. One of the reasons that I only applied to colleges outside the south was that I wanted to see what other environments there are. I knew that there are other places that could be more open and accepting, but I don't really know to what extent. I got to Penn, which is super open, super liberal, and one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly campuses—which I didn’t know at that time. It was because of that environment that I got to not only finally be open to everyone else, but to be honest with myself.

Wrapping up, how would you describe yourself? You’re a creator, a writer, a bread lover?

I am a bread lover, yes. I think you said "multi-hyphenate" in the beginning, and honestly, I think that’s a great word. I have so many different interests and so many different things that I do throughout my life. I hate to confine myself to just one word or my identity to just one thing. Multi-hyphenate. I call myself "Laura the Explorer" a lot because it also rhymes with "Dora the Explorer." "Explorer" is probably the best word to summarise all of it because I'm constantly looking for new things to try out, and new jumps to take. Because why do the same thing for the rest of your life?

On the Feed

I’d just arrived back in San Francisco after a couple of months at home. It was nice to be back in Texas, but I’m not really out to my parents or many people back home.I was just incredibly thankful to be back in SF and I love biking. I was out on a ride and I wanted to document this moment of euphoria. I ended up doing this self-photoshoot. I put the phone on a trash can, and I had a soy milk drink at the time and put it behind the phone to support it. it was just a really great moment.

My birthday, May 14, was the exact day of my graduation. In the week leading up to my birthday, I did a Facebook fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. I said that if we reached $10,000 I’d wear the onesie on my graduation. I didn't think it’d ever reach that number, but it did, and so I showed up as a pink dinosaur on the day I graduated.

My mom took this picture and, when I saw it, I zoomed in to the background. Those were the paintings that my brother and I drew when we were very young. I've always had a contentious relationship with my family, especially around my artistic side. While they were supportive of it as a passion, they were never supportive of it as a “real” thing. That was really important for me to see that my mom had these pictures for years in her office. And to know that maybe on the outside, it seemed like they were disapproving, but on the inside, they still really appreciated the artistic side of their kids.

That’s my current apartment in SF. I always loved ambient light. I try to have as much light as possible when I work. I use an app called Procreate, and I use an Apple pencil to draw. My keyboard—that's what I usually do for breaks. I love music; not only listening but playing. Whenever I get tired or want a break, I'll usually improv music or just play a tune.

That's my grandma on my mom's side. I'm actually probably the closest to her out of all my relatives in Wuhan. We call almost every week. I tell her things I don't even tell my parents. She's been a really great mentor figure in my life. I was probably still in Wuhan at that time of this picture. I’m holding a toy gun or something. It looks like we’re part of a gang or mob, and she’s the mob boss and I’m her firsthand.

Off the Cuff

On anime

Haikyu!! The best part is the characters are all so lovable; there’s not a single character that I hate. It’s to a point when you love a character so much that you want to just like know everything about them.

On Twitter

The social media that I’m on 24/7.

On bread

Fillmore Bakeshop sourdough.

On family group chats

They’re an enigma to me. It's silence for a while, then my parents would ask for an update, which I give, then it's silence again. Rinse and repeat!

On romcoms

I am obsessed with Crash Landing on You. All my friends know I don’t even like cheesy, lovey-dovey stuff, but I can't explain it.

Find Laura Gao on Twitter, Instagram and her website.

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